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Whitney Cerak (left) and Laura Van Ryn (right)
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Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope

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'Mistaken Identity' Reveals God's Grace

By Belinda Elliott Daily Life Producer

CBN.comIt was a story that made national headlines because it was so hard to believe. In the aftermath of a devastating wreck that killed five people, a case of mistaken identity added to the trauma that two families were already experiencing.

The accident occurred as a van full of students and employees from Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, were returning to campus after serving at a banquet on April 26, 2006. The driver of a semi-tractor trailer collided with them after he fell asleep behind the wheel. Five people were killed instantly, and one young woman found to be barely breathing, was rushed to the hospital.

The woman was identified as Laura Van Ryn, a 22-year-old college student from Caledonia, Michigan. She was badly bruised and suffering from a serious brain injury. For five weeks Laura’s mother, father, and sister helped care for the young woman as she slowly emerged from a coma and began physical therapy.

The Van Ryns were told by doctors that Laura may be confused and seem different than how they knew her. As a result, the family never gave it a second thought when Laura mistakenly called them by the wrong names, or when they noticed things about her that looked slightly different than before, such as her teeth.

Then one day in a therapy session Laura was asked to write her name. In response, she wrote W-H-I-T-N-E-Y. Though it seemed really strange to her father, Don Van Ryn, the medical staff attributed it to her brain injury and suggested that perhaps she had been seated next to someone named Whitney in the van.

When Laura’s sister, Lisa Van Ryn, heard about the therapy session from her dad, she began to feel unsettled. The small things that her family had noticed during their five weeks at the hospital started to make her question the young woman’s identity. She remembered someone named Whitney as being one of the five people killed in the accident. She had a DVD that had been shown at a memorial service for the crash victims. On it was a picture of Whitney Cerak, a Taylor student that had been killed in the wreck. One look at the photo confirmed her fear. She no longer believed it was her sister Laura that her family had been caring for; it was Whitney.

Immediately, Lisa asked her father how the bodies at the accident scene had been identified. Could there have been a mistake? When he checked into it he was told that there was some possible room for doubt about his daughter’s identity. Soon dental records confirmed that the young woman in the hospital was Whitney, not his daughter Laura.

Though the news was devastating to the Van Ryns, their main concern quickly became reuniting Whitney with her real parents, Newell and Colleen Cerak of Gaylord, Michigan. Just five weeks before, on the day after their daughter’s 19th birthday, the Ceraks had buried Laura’s body thinking it was Whitney. Now they were about to learn that their daughter was actually alive.

Sharing Their Story

Those events took place in the summer of 2006. Now, after two years of trying to put their lives back together, the Van Ryn and Cerak families are sharing their story with the world. Their recently released book, Mistaken Identity, tells how the two families’ Christian faith strengthened them through the ordeal.

Though people will want to read about the unique circumstances surrounding the accident and the identity mix-up, the families believe that the true message of their story is God’s love.

“This book is really about how God has sustained two families through His grace,” the authors write. “We hope after all that is said on these pages, you see it is really all about Him.”

The families were hesitant at first to write the book because they were not the only ones affected by the accident. Many other families lost loved ones as well. They eventually decided to share their story because they felt like it was something God wanted them to do.

The book immediately shot to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List as soon as it was released. And they have heard from countless readers telling them how the story has touched them. Lisa Van Ryn said the family has received cards from people telling them that the story changed their perspective on life, changed their thoughts about God, and offered them hope.

“It’s encouraging to hear that people are being challenged,” Lisa said. “Laura would be honored to know that she’s been a part of this story in a way that has brought that many people closer to the Lord. That’s awesome.”

The families place no blame on anyone for the identity mix up, and they harbor no resentment toward the trucker involved in the accident. It is another aspect of their Christian faith that shines through in their story.

“The whole idea of not placing blame is really counter cultural to what we see all over the place today,” Lisa said. “I guess that’s maybe something that God wanted to have so prevalent in our story so that people could see that there’s a different way to view things. You don’t have to point blame in every situation. This seems like a situation where you would absolutely want to do that because of how things turned out. But maybe God planned it extra-ordinarily so He could make that point.”

Hope in the Midst of Tragedy

The two families write in the book about God’s grace and love that brought them through the tragedy. They want readers to know that this same grace is available to everyone.

“It is a horrible thing to lose a child,” the authors write. “Yet even in the midst of the worst of tragedies, God reveals Himself. These are not just words we use to keep our spirits up during difficult days. We have experienced this revelation for ourselves. Above all things, this is the message we hope to convey. This is a story about God’s grace and His love for us that transcends the worst this world can dish out.”

“And our faith is not something so great,” Lisa said. “It’s really God that has given us the strength to continue to walk with Him.”

Her sister’s life reflected that same passion and love for God, and Lisa hopes that Laura’s death will lead others to want to experience that as well.

“It’s just awesome to know that she had a faith in the Lord and that she’s with Him now. I don’t know what she would think of all this, but we are all going to die someday. If you’re going to die in an accident like this, how amazing it is that your death would leave a legacy of faith and hope. That encourages me.”

After working closely with Whitney in her therapy, Lisa has gone back to school with plans to work in the physical therapy field.

“I’m excited to work with people in that way and hopefully bring some compassion from my experience to those that I’ll be caring for and their families,” Lisa said. “I’m really excited about that.”

Her parents are planning to move to work full time at the camp where Laura and her family have been involved for years.

Whitney’s Point of View

Whitney’s life has also been changed as a result of the accident. She has made a full recovery and returned to school at Taylor University. However, she writes in the book that she found it difficult to get back to “normal” when she returned to school.

She struggled with the guilt of wondering why she survived when other students did not. The idea that God had spared her life “for a reason” left her feeling like people had huge expectations that she needed to live up to. Then a friend reminded her of the Bible story where God speaks through a whisper rather than an earthquake.

“I realized that instead of thinking that my life has to be some big windstorm or earthquake for God, perhaps I only have to let Him whisper gently through my life,” Whitney writes in the book. “That story made me realize I don’t have to accomplish some giant thing for God. If I’m just a camp counselor who makes the difference in the life of one person, or if I’m just a mom who loves her children and tells them about Jesus, that’s enough. It took a little while, but I finally figured out that God’s purpose is for me to let Him do whatever He wants in my life, big or small. Being a part of writing this book may be the last “big” thing I ever do, and I’m fine with that.”

The accident also changed her relationship with God. Though she had grown up in a Christian home, she said she never felt extremely close to God. As she entered college she was praying that God would give her more of a passion for Him, which is something that the accident led to.

“He answered my prayers and gave me a desire for Him that I never had before,” she writes.

She said the ordeal has shown her that God works in mysterious ways, and that He can work through both the good and the bad.

“At the one-year memorial, Don Van Ryn said that any one of the people in that van would have gladly given his or her life for Christ. And I believe that is really what they did. Since the accident, and since the mix-up with Laura and me, so many people have heard and seen God’s love that wouldn’t have heard it any other way," Whitney writes. "Don said that’s what all the people in the van would have wanted, no matter what the cost.”


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